Winter fades into spring, the sunshine hits a little warmer, pollinators begin to appear bouncing among the earliest blooms and the mid-story of Virginia’s forests glow with flashes of yellow as Northern Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), affectionately known as “Forsythia of the woods” bursts into bloom. This Capital Region native, is an exciting spring bloomer, but it also has tremendous value for gardeners, wildlife, history, and even foragers of today.
This deciduous shrub is very inconspicuous throughout the winter, as it resembles brown upright sticks, but what it lacks in the winter it makes up for throughout the rest of the year. Bright yellow blooms appear in early spring before the leaves develop which eventually give way to glossy red fruits in the early fall. It also puts on a brilliant leaf display in Autumn when the leaves turn a robust golden color.
Beyond the beauty of this shrub it’s highly valuable to wildlife and humans alike. The single drupes are a great food source for migratory songbirds, and are especially favored by the wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina). Additionally, the spaces between the branches provide ideal habitat for nest builders. But, if the songbird value is not enough, It also serves as a host species for the larval stages of the eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio Glaucus) and the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus). If you enjoy having these butterflies around though, consider getting additional nectar sources to fulfill multiple life stages.
Spicebush has also provided great historical value to humans as well. Dried fruits were used as a spice, and dried leaves and essential oils from the shrub were used to make tea. Today, many people still consume parts of Northern Spicebush, and it can even be found retailing under the name of Appalachian Allspice.
If you are looking to spot these beauties in one of our gardens, they can be found decorating the edge of the rain garden at Great Shiplock Park.
Native Plants for Virginia’s Capital Region (PlanRVA, 2018)
Author: Lisa Trapp